Revisiting Herb Caen, San Francisco’s Chronicler

by Randy Shaw, 2013-01-10

If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1936-1996, you almost certainly read San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. For many, Caen was the chief reason they picked up the paper. For decades he was both the chief source of “inside” scoops about the city’s movers and shakers, and the leading daily chronicler of the city’s downtrodden and working class. Over the recent holidays I read three of Caen’s books and one written about him, and have now read all of his works. They are remarkable. They are worth reading not simply for their depiction of the city’s largely forgotten past, but rather for the insights he provides about San Francisco in 2013. Reading Caen reminds us that our rental housing crisis is nothing new, that Market Street has long been a traffic planner’s nightmare, that racism exists just below the surface of our “we all get along” city, and that people have felt that San Francisco is changing for the worse since at least the 1930’s. Caen’s books preserve the insights of his daily columns, and could not be timelier today.

When I started reading Herb Caen’s columns in the mid-1970’s and continued to do so until his death (he died in 1997), I primarily saw him as a guy who regularly lunched with Wilkes Bashford and Willie Brown and enjoyed being among the city’s political movers and shakers and celebrity set. I was careful not to miss Caen’s gossip pieces, even though his references were sometimes too cryptic for me and most readers to pick up).

Caen regularly bemoaned the building of the latest refrigerator-resembling highrise and/or the demolition of a great historic building (he waged a major but unsuccessful campaign to save the City of Paris at Union Square), but I did not fully appreciate how he was laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of San Francisco.

I began reading Caen’s books in 2010, starting with his legendary Baghdad by the Bay, first published in 1949. His 1953 book, Don’t Call it Frisco, may be equally known, though Caen may be best known nationally for that phrase as he is for coining the term “beatnik” in 1958.

Caen loved walking through the Tenderloin. He wrote that “it may be too strong to say I love the Tenderloin, but I dig it.” The more you read Caen the better understanding you get of his broader and deeper assessment of his times; you also appreciate how Caen puts current issues still facing San Francisco into a broader context

A Struggle Over Change

For nearly its entire history San Francisco has faced internal struggles over “change.” Today’s debate about the impact of the high-tech influx into the city was preceded by similar conflicts over the dot-com boom, “Manhattanization,” the gay and lesbian influx, the city’s decline amidst rising suburbanization, and concern to changes to the physical landscape that go back a century.

Reading Caen it becomes clear that at almost every stage of change there were many in the city who thought that its essence was being lost, driven out, demolished, or abandoned in exchange for something “new” of much lesser value. Often those favoring change---and even the normally pro- preservationist Caen backed demolishing what he saw as substandard wood frame buildings in the Western Addition that are now highly prized landmarks----were wrong. But Caen shows how some are suspicious of any change of any type anywhere, and describes why this attitude does not serve the city’s interests.

Market Street

Those interested in the current Better Market Street planning process will really get a kick out of reading Caen’s comments on Market Street. He correctly describes it as a poorly designed, twisty central artery that has caused traffic problems in the city since its construction. Caen is convinced that Market Street’s snarls can never be solved, which lends credence to those promoting greater bicycle use on Market and a reduction in private cars.

Caen recognized that Market Street’s business environment was in decline even before the 1950’s. Caen wrote a lot about the sad state of affairs on Market. He saw little progress on Market by the time of his death and could not have imagined how the combination of a city payroll tax exemption and a hands-on mayor recruiting businesses to relocate and developers to invest would finally spark its revitalization.

SF’s Housing Crisis

I often try to put the city’s current rental housing shortage in perspective by noting that the situation was just as bad when I was trying to find an apartment in San Francisco in the spring of 1979. But Caen’s description of the rental housing crisis in 1948 shows that this problem afflicted San Francisco well before anyone began transforming the city’s economy to office development and tourism. Caen was outraged by the crisis facing the city’s renters after WWII, and hoped for better days ahead.

Racial Conflict

Caen may have been among the few daily newspersons of the pre-1960s who openly called out the pervasive but little discussed racism in San Francisco against African-American and Asian-Americans. San Franciscans are so busy patting themselves on the backs for their enlightened racial attitudes that reporters from Caen’s former paper are still allowed to engage in blatant anti-Asian racism without rebuke.

Caen’s books are available in local libraries and used editions are available in local bookstores and online. I am confident that those interested in San Francisco of today and of the past will enjoy these books as much as I did, and find them equally illuminating.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.